Education, and particularly post-compulsory education, has always been a complex area to navigate. For many young people, decisions about further and higher education options can be very daunting and difficult to make. Do you choose qualifications that pique your interest, or should your decisions be utilitarian and guided by future career plans? When confronted with a raft of options for further and higher education, choosing between a BTEC or A-levels, higher national qualifications or degrees, it can be hard for young people to know what options best suit their long-term needs – if, indeed, they even have a clear idea of what those long-term needs might be.
It is because of this complexity that Careers, Information, Advice and Guidance (CIAG) has been given such a high priority in compulsory education settings. Indeed, the government has recently launched a consultation seeking to strengthen statutory requirements for CIAG activities in compulsory education. However, at the same time as trying to ensure that there is better information, advice and guidance for young people to make long term decisions about their education, we are also seeing an increase in the complexity of our education system, particularly at the interface of FE and HE. Here we consider the challenges and opportunities for the wider education sector, with a particular emphasis on the role that universities can play.
The Changing Landscape
The Office for Students has recently issued a call for providers with approved Access and Participation Plans to submit a variation to these plans, covering a number of emerging priorities. Of particular relevant here is the priority to “develop more diverse pathways into and through higher education through more flexible courses”. A clear line can be drawn between this emerging priority, and the recommendations of the Augar Review to expand access to L4 and 5 qualifications – a topic on which our own Vice Chancellor, Professor Dave Phoenix, has previously written.
In principle, this is a positive shift, and will support our economic need for more people obtaining professional and technical qualifications, at L4 and 5. However, from a student’s perspective, things may be about to get even more complicated. Consider, for example, how a young person interested in pursuing a career in a skilled trade might best be advised to proceed after leaving further education. Should they pursue an apprenticeship (and if so, to what level?), or should they be seeking to find a provider offering a higher technical qualification (HTQ)? What about undertaking a bachelor’s degree which is accredited by the relevant professional body for entry into their chosen vocation? And finally, where might this student choose to study, given the choice of both FE and HE providers, offering the same or similar options, but in quite different learning environments?
There is a clear risk in this scenario that, with a growing amount of complexity and an education sector which at FE and HE continues to undergo its own transformation, those students who are already less likely to access higher education will be least likely to find support for their own education and career choices. Of course, this speaks to the original purpose of the Uni Connect Programme across England, set up to encourage access and participation from underrepresented groups into higher education. But we wonder, has the sector yet formulated clear enough messages to help update CIAG which can be disseminated to young people through such initiatives?
LSBU Group and Educational Pathways
London South Bank University is now a member of the wider LSBU Group, which brings together South Bank Colleges and South Bank Academies in to a group structure. In creating the group, we aim to respond to local, regional, and national skills needs, providing career-focused pathways across our institutions. Importantly, this structure means we offer a complete range of educational options from Level 1 to Level 8, with varied modes of study, a growing portfolio of apprenticeships, and HTQs soon to be launched.
We are keen to share our own institution as an example in this space, because the journey we have been on has taught us a lot about the challenges of creating a more diverse educational offer, working across pre-16, FE and HE contexts. Within our group, there has been a huge learning curve for colleagues, as we have come to learn more about the educational landscape outside of our ‘home’ institutions. This has led to work being done to develop what we call our Educational Pathways, which is our attempt to help our students understand the diverse landscape of qualifications, and how they might move in to – and over time, progress through – different careers.
Figures 1-3, below, illustrate how we have sought to present this information to students, in a way that helps them see not only the options available to them at the next stage of their education and career, but also to see the long-term opportunities which exist for them.
Challenges and Opportunities for the Sector
Being part of a group which brings together a number of different educational settings, we see significant opportunities for the education sector to collaborate more closely, to provide students with the right qualifications, at the right time in their careers. But underpinning the expansion of our portfolios – which is, in many respects, the easy part of the puzzle – has to be a commitment to clear communication on the different study options we are making available. If we get this right, we can ensure that we are matching students not only to the qualifications which help them on to the next stage of their life journey. We can also ensure that we are best serving the diverse learning needs which students bring with them in to any educational setting.